Over on LinkedIn, I’ve been posting some little tips on pitfalls to avoid in your writing, as a series of posts with the hashtag #WhatNotToWrite. And I thought it seemed like a good idea to package up the first five into a handy blog post – so here it is.
The tips are mainly geared towards business writing, and are based on things I’ve noticed when editing business content – but some are worth bearing in mind when doing other types of writing as well. Here we go, then …
1️⃣ Don’t use words and expressions like ‘current’, ‘currently’ and ‘at this time’ unless they help in some way.
It’s easy to pad out your business writing with this kind of thing, almost without thinking. But is it worth it? Remember that every word gives your readers a bit of work to do. If they keep having to wade through pointless verbiage, chances are they’ll become bored, frustrated and tempted to look elsewhere.
I once edited a report where 0.5 per cent of the words (127) were ‘current’ or ‘currently’. Hardly any of them were useful.
If you’re contrasting the present state of something with its previous state, or a potential future state, it makes sense to use this kind of wording for emphasis. Otherwise, it’s a waste of space, and of your readers’ time.
Let’s look at these statements, for example:
▶ The company currently employs around 100 staff.
▶ There are no plans to expand the service at this time.
If we delete ‘currently’ and ‘at this time’, will this affect the meaning or clarity? The verbs make it obvious that these statements are about the present time.
❓ If in doubt, ask yourself this question: does it help me to get my message across? If the answer’s no, get rid of it.
2️⃣ Don’t use ‘etc.’ at the end of a list that’s introduced by something like ‘for example’ or ‘such as’.
▶ It is used for functions such as finance, payroll, HR etc.
The words ‘such as’ make it clear that the list is incomplete – you don’t need to ram the point home with ‘etc.’
This will do nicely instead:
▶ It is used for functions such as finance, payroll and HR.
OK, so it’s only a few characters, and you need to insert ‘and’ if you leave 'etc.' out. In the reader’s head, though, it’s four syllables: et-cet-e-ra. Also, this kind of extra wording can make your writing seem bloated and clumsy, and give the impression that you haven’t really thought it through.
You could omit the ‘such as’ (or whatever) instead – but ‘etc.’ has its drawbacks anyway. Abbreviations can look untidy, and can make the reader stumble.
Also, as ‘etc.’ often has a full stop (though this is a style choice), it might be unclear whether it’s the end of a sentence, depending on how the next word begins.
Instead, you could use something like ‘and so on’ or ‘and others’. But it’s often better to make it clear at the start that you’re giving a partial list.
As ever: if it doesn’t help the reader, cut it out. ✂
3️⃣ Don’t automatically write ‘then’ after an ‘if …’ condition.
Here’s an example:
▶ If you follow this advice, it will improve your writing.
▶ If you follow this advice, then it will improve your writing.
Does the ‘then’ help in any way? Does it make the meaning clearer? I don’t think so.
I’m not saying it’s wrong, or that you should never use it. But it’s unnecessary, it disrupts the flow of the sentence, and it’ll make your writing repetitive and tedious if it appears often.
It does have its uses, though. Sometimes, a ‘then’ helps to guide the reader through a long, complex sentence. Sometimes it helps with emphasis, or with adding some variety to your wording. It also makes good sense when there’s a sequence of events, for example:
▶ If this issue is resolved, then we can begin to make progress.
Mostly, though, you and your readers are better off without it.
And you should never use ‘then’ if the conditional part begins with something like ‘when’, ‘where’ or ‘unless’ – that really would just look plain wrong.
4️⃣ Don’t write ‘in case’ when you mean ‘if’ or ‘in the event of’.
This normally means something is being done as a precaution. For example, compare these sentences:
▶ If it rains, I’ll take an umbrella.
▶ In case it rains, I’ll take an umbrella.
The first means I’ll check the weather, and if it’s raining, I’ll take an umbrella. The second means I’ll definitely take one – as a precaution in case it rains later.
I also sometimes come across things like this:
▶ In case of a system failure, data will be restored from backups.
But this means it’ll be regularly restored from backups, as a precaution against a possible failure, which wouldn’t be a good idea. These are better:
▶ In the event of a system failure, data will be restored from backups.
▶ If the system fails, data will be restored from backups.
The following is fine, though:
▶ In case of a system failure, data is backed up each day.
The Oxford online dictionary says ‘in case’ can mean ‘in the event of’. For US English, the Merriam-Webster one says it can mean ‘if’. But, to avoid confusion, why not use those words instead?
5️⃣ Don’t write ‘one of the only’.
Here’s an example:
▶ She was one of the only people there.
What’s the problem? Well, it doesn’t tell us much. How many people were there? Three, 20, a million? However many there were, it would still be true to say she was one of the only ones.
When people use this expression, what they almost certainly mean is ‘one of the few’, like this:
▶ She was one of the few people there.
Admittedly, most readers will probably understand the intended meaning, so it isn’t a huge problem. But some might well find it jarring as they notice the vagueness and ambiguity of the wording. That won’t help if you want them to focus on your message, and not be distracted by things like this. So, if you mean ‘one of the few’, why not write that instead? That way, you can’t go wrong.
More coming soon, I hope ...
Thoughts on Words
An editorial blog. Posts by Graham Hughes.